Crikey. Season 8 of Game of Thrones is sure taking a battering. Fans are slating it. Critics are slating it. For a show that once earned almost universal acclaim, things have taken an unexpected turn.
Is all this criticism deserved? Frankly, no. I’m not going to talk about how incredible the acting and special effects are this season, because the consensus is that those things are top-notch. What everyone’s talking about is the writing. People aren’t happy with how the plot is progressing nor how the characters are being treated, and showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff are getting a lot of flack for it.
I do get what people are saying about Seasons 7 and 8 feeling “rushed”. Despite the insistence of the showrunners that there was only so much story left, that’s only because they drastically upped the pace of the storytelling. GOT was, before Season 7, a slow burn. That wasn’t always a good thing. While we all loved Arya’s season-and-a-half-long travels with the Hound, many of us hated her two-season-long training at the House of Black and White, where nothing much of anything happened. And look at how slowly Daenerys’ plotline has progressed. It took her 6 seasons to get to Westeros, which was where her story was leading from the beginning. And the glacial build up was a definitely a mixed bag. Her Season 2 storyline was a bit pointless (goes to Qarth, gets dragons stolen). Season 3 was better (gets an army, frees slaves). Seasons 4 and 5 were very slow again, but with occasional dashes of excitement (Dany in Meereen). And in Season 6 we circled back round to the start (Dany and the Dothraki).
Still, even though at points the story has progressed too slowly, it was a mistake to accelerate the pace this rapidly. A LOT has happened since the start of Season 7 and if we had the full 10 episodes for both Seasons 7 and 8, it wouldn’t feel so rushed. We would’ve had more of those character-driven scenes that don’t necessarily advance the plot but we love them because we love the characters. And we’d have fewer complaints about fast travel and characters becoming plot pawns.
The first 2 episodes of Season 8 were actually a return to the slower, moodier GOT of past seasons. Not a lot happened in these episodes, but we had some wonderful character moments in both of them. The reviews, however, have been plummeting since episode 3. The Long Night scored 75% on Rotten Tomatoes, The Last of the Starks scored 57% and The Bells scored 47%. And this is a show that was consistently scoring in the 90s before this season.
Of those 3, I actually think The Bells should score the highest. My biggest problem with the season, until The Bells, was that nothing that was happening was particularly surprising. The Long Night, for instance, was both fantastic and not-so-fantastic. It was gripping and exciting and I had no idea what was going to happen. But by the end I realised that a lot of what did happen was predictable. There were no huge twists. Nobody important died. The few main characters who did died in a very heroic, generic fashion—which was never really Thrones’ way. And the total destruction of the White Walkers in one episode—after they’d been set up right at the beginning of episode 1 as the series’ main antagonists—was super disappointing.
As I watched the episode, although I found it tense throughout, I had this nagging, growing sense that most of the main characters were wearing plot armour. The writers were deliberately keeping certain people alive because those characters had stuff to do later. How many times did Sam and Brienne and Jaime get totally bundled by wights? And Sam isn’t even a good fighter, for God’s sake. It was slightly ridiculous that he didn’t die (particularly as he’s had little-to-no impact on the story since).
The Battle of Winterfell should’ve been the most devastating battle of the whole series. Jon Snow has been insisting for years that fighting over the Iron Throne doesn’t matter one jot with the Night King around and, in the end, the Night King was pretty bloody easy to defeat. A few deaths of key characters would’ve at least made his defeat feel a bit more earned.
It dawned on me that we haven’t had a rug-pull death of a major character since Margaery Tyrell at the end of Season 6. These are the sorts of shocks on which Thrones used to thrive. We presumed that Joffrey would send Ned Stark to the Wall so that he could team up with Jon, talk about his mum, and find some other way of toppling the Lannister regime—then Joffrey cut his head off. We thought Rob Stark would win the Lannister/Stark war and that he and Catelyn would succeed, eventually, in avenging Ned’s death—then Walder Frey hosted a wedding. We presumed we were seeing the beginning of a blossoming relationship between Stannis Baratheon and his estranged daughter, Shireen—then he went and burned her at the stake. And we thought Margaery’s skills of manipulation and expertise at playing the long game would lead her to outwit Cersei—then Cersei blew her up. All these characters were in the middle of their stories when they were offed. That’s what made them so shocking.
The fourth episode of Season 8, The Last of the Starks, contained one minor shock—the death of another dragon. Otherwise, events proceeded predictably and Missandei’s death was inevitable the moment she was kidnapped. There was no way Cersei was going to back down. We all knew that. No surprises there.
However, the fifth episode, The Bells, went in a direction I wasn’t expecting. Daenerys Targaryen—a hero for millions of viewers since Season 1—went crackers. She burned down half of King’s Landing, thousands of innocent civilians along with it. It was the most reprehensible act of the entire series.
Critics and fans have condemned this development because they think it’s out of character, that it doesn’t in any way fit with what we expect of Daenerys. Actually, that’s not quite true. She wanted to burn all the slave cities after the masters attacked Meereen in Season 6 and Tyrion had to talk her out of it. She wanted to set King’s Landing aflame when she arrived in Dragonstone in Season 7 and, again, Tyrion had to talk her out of it. (And of course let’s remember that Lady Olenna then told Daenerys to ignore Tyrion and “be a dragon”.) She has on several occasions demonstrated that she can be cold, callous and unmerciful—the burning of the witch in Season 1, the crucifixion of the masters in Season 4, the burning of the Tarlys in Season 7. And she said way back in Season 2, “When my dragons are grown, we will lay waste to armies and burn cities to the ground.”
However, despite the foreshadowing, Daenerys’ actions were still shocking and horrifying. People are saying it’s bad writing, that it didn’t make sense and that we should have seen Daenerys’ madness develop more gradually. It isn’t, it did, and we shouldn’t. It was abrupt, yes, but that is totally reflective of real life. Some of our worst criminals did the things they did with no forewarning and no one expecting it. They just turned. Suddenly and unexpectedly they snapped and became monsters. Why must TV characters always behave in the way we expect, the way we deem true to their character, when people in real life don’t?
Frankly we’d seen enough. We’d known for years that Daenerys had a cold and impulsive side. We knew that she was becoming increasingly insecure in her position since coming to Westeros, and particularly since finding out that Jon had a better claim to the throne. This was then compounded by grief at the death of another of her children and Missandei, a dear friend and one of the slaves she’d freed. Oh, and then Varys betrayed her and Jon snubbed her. We have a situation where her actions made perfect sense and yet we still couldn’t quite believe she was capable of them. Isn’t that what Game of Thrones has always done best?
The Bells was the best episode of Season 8 so far because it subverted all our expectations about Daenerys Targaryen and her seemingly inevitable destiny to sit on the Iron Throne. Now we don’t know who’s going to sit on it (if it’s even still there—most of the Red Keep isn’t). I don’t think Jon should. Even though Varys thought him a better alternative, he’s cut from the same cloth as Ned. He’s too honourable to do well in King’s Landing. He’s not clever enough to deal with all the politics and the back-stabbing.
Perhaps Daenerys will sit on it anyway. We all want her to be held accountable for what she’s done, but saying that, we all wanted Margaery to outmanoeuvre Cersei and Robb to avenge Ned. With this latest development, Game of Thrones has turned back into the show it used to be: one that was never that interested in giving us what we want.
I’m also wondering if who sits on the Iron Throne was never really the point. Perhaps it will be destroyed and we’ll see a new system of government take root in its place. After all, the Westerosi monarchy hasn’t really worked out, has it?
I’m fascinated to see where it all goes next, and I really hope they’ll be a few more surprises before the credits roll for the final time.
Stay tuned for a review of episode 6. I’ll be posting this next week.